The future of transit

Via Arlington 

Transportation experts talk about transportation on the public service utility model

The transportation systems of the future – the not-so-distant future in some cases – will be no more noticeable to the consumer than the systems that deliver electricity, water and sewer services to our homes, experts on transportation and technology told a breakfast meeting April 12 at Leadership Outlook, an annual program of Leadership Fort Worth.

Panel members were Laney Schorp, regional lead for Via Transportation, the company partnered with Arlington in a ride-sharing project; Alberto Gonzalez, CEO of NTE Mobility Partners and LBJ Infrastructure Group, building and managing toll lanes in North Texas; Steven Duong, associate vice president for design and planning of economics for AECOM; and Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

District 6 Fort Worth City Councilman Jungus Jordan, who is recognized as a leader in transportation issues on the council, moderated the discussion.

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Jordan asked panel members to name one transportation advancement that will be part of the future transit system in the Fort Worth region.

Duong, who is charged with directing an ambitious program to connect Fort Worth and Dallas to the Mexican border by a hyperloop project roughly along the route of Interstate 35, said a major change would be the shift from transportation as a commodity to a service model that operates in the background like a public utility.

Hyperloops are transportation systems under development that are similar to the vacuum tubes used at drive-in banks, except that the cylinders carry people or goods at speeds just below the speed of sound.

“You know, you turn on your faucet, you expect water to come out. In some ways we envision the future of transportation being something that,” Duong said. “I just go about my daily life and wherever I need to go … I don’t have to worry about how to get there, what mode to take, how to pay for it. It just operates in the back of my life.”

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Schorp’s answer focused more on communication and technology that helps people connect all the different transit options easily and efficiently.

“There are a lot of players out there currently trying to kind of pave the path in this regard,” she said. “But I think that the technology that really unlocks that and makes it as easy and convenient and affordable for people to use all of these multitude of options is really going to change the game.”

Morris echoed Duong, says that early conversations about electricity, water and sewage probably were no different that the conversations we are having today about transportation systems.

“Our success is when they all blur. Our success in transportation as a service is when it will blur. We don’t all know how complicated it is to keep the electric grid going. We don’t all know how complicated it is to have water as reliable as it is in our particular region,” he said.

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“Our job as for leaders of Fort Worth is to create a seamless ability through communication and leadership where this all blurs. It’s just in the background. We don’t know it as a vacuum tube, we don’t know it as dynamically priced toll-managed lanes. We don’t know it as integrated supply-demand optimization. It is just us living our life in a seamless ability,” Morris said.

Gonzalez spoke of improving customer experience through some sort of connectivity between infrastructure and the user.

“We’re talking about improvements in safety, we’re talking about … some level of autonomous vehicles in the near future. You can be reading your newspaper or downloading a movie or watching or listening to your songs or whatever in your car. I think that’s probably what’s coming next,” Gonzalez said.

Jordan referred to Morris as a genius.

“I’m going to say that. Every mode of transportation in our region is something that Michael thought of in his sleep one day, I think,” Jordan said.

Morris offered a kind of summary,

“In a region of 7 ½ million people, you’re going to be touching lots of different modes of transportation when you’re going to be getting around. This region is going to lead with technology,” Morris said.

“Technology’s going to bring the best and the brightest of people to live in our region. It improves wage rates. It improves the quality of the education. It improves the quality of our community,” he said.

Technology, Morris said, has a direct benefit on more reliable transportation, but it also is the core element that will bring the next Amazon or bring innovators to Fort Worth and Dallas.

Morris is a graduate of Leadership Fort Worth.

“I can’t remember what year it was, but I think it’s in the Old Testament,” he joked.

He praised the organization for the event and lauded those attending.

“You are the, quote, adult in the room. There are people that meet in this region, waking up every day, that are anti-transit, anti-technology, anti-innovative finance. Try to beat us up regularly,” Morris said.

“Leadership Fort Worth is a great avenue to hone your leadership skills, determine what you believe is important in life, and I think it’s an opportunity for transportation to help pull us together, literally. Not just in travel time and reliability, but as an important ingredient to the community,” he said.

What follows are lightly edited excepts from the presentations:

On the safety of automatous vehicles:

Michael Morris: So, we are not six lines of code away from an autonomous vehicle. That’s the 2019 version. It’ll take a little bit longer. But I will tell you as human beings we shouldn’t be driving. The fatality rate on our transportation system is disgusting, and it’s getting worse because we now take our cellphones and do really stupid things while we’re going 70 miles an hour.

We used to do stupid things going 70 miles an hour without our cellphone on. Every fatality report is read by the transportation professionals in this region. The first thing a police officer does in a fatality is to grab the cellphone and see what is on it. Games. Videos. Movies. Now a dead person sitting on that particular phone.

But when someone says, “You know, I’m scared to death about autonomous vehicles,” check out how great a driver they are. The dead people don’t get to talk about the stupid things that they did when they were driving their car. You need to tell your teenagers, “I hope to see you at the end of the day. Don’t do something really stupid. Put your seatbelt on and put that phone in the back seat.” And this notion of instantaneous satisfaction can create some very complicated elements.

Steven Duong: If any other industry came up and did like a pitch to their boss or CEO and told them they were going to make this huge investment into a technology system, but at the cost of 40,000 deaths a year (roughly the National Safety Council’s estimate of vehicle deaths in 2017), they would be laughed out of room. … Except for some reason in transportation we’ve kind of been somewhat neutralized to it and we accept it as this fact that we have to drive and we have to have 40,000 fatalities a year.

That, to me, is just unacceptable. And so even if automated vehicles are a ways off, if they can reduce that – and let’s just be optimistic and say half – under no circumstance could I see a world in which we should not be supporting something that saves 20,000 lives a year.

On the hyperloop:

Steven Duong: The hyperloop is basically a next-generation high speed transportation system being pushed by several different startup companies that were all inspired by a 2013 white paper by Elon Musk. He had his team at SpaceX write a paper about the hyperloop and released it on the internet saying anyone in the world who wants to take this white paper and start a company with it, feel free to do so.

And that’s exactly what happened. So, in essence, a hyperloop is a pod that floats on magnets, like a magnet system, that goes into a near-vacuum tube and then you put yourself in that pod and then you sling yourself off to your next destination at right under Mach-1 at about 650 miles per hour.

Imagine taking an airplane flying in the air and cut off the wings and then bring the fuselage down to the surface of the earth and then bring down the low-pressure environment of the upper atmosphere to the surface of the earth by putting it inside a tube. That’s basically what the hyperloop concept in a very simplified manner is. It’s flying near the surface of the earth.

The other kind of major aspect is that it is fully automated and electric. The idea is that there are no drivers in these pods’ operating system. It’s meant to be next-generation, high-speed transportation in the area of MOS – mobility as a service, which many of our folks are already talking about with Via – and CASE – connected, automated, shared and electric. It’s high-speed transportation in this new paradigm of mobility.

The key thing to know is that it has not been deployed anywhere in the world. There is a fully built-to-scale 500 meter test track in Nevada that’s built by Virgin Heartbeat One, owned by Virgin of Virgin Galactic and others. That is the most mature hyperloop system in the world right now, with a pod that moves through about 250 miles an hour.

You release this paper in 2013. In six years, we’ve gone from an internet paper to several companies around the world working on building autonomous, electric hyperloop systems that are moving at 700 miles an hour. That’s how fast this technology is moving and maturing.

Shared rides/Via:

Laney Schorp: I think the kind of things that we’re seeing are going to shape the near future of our space – on-demand transportation, electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and, of course, shared rides. At Via we’re specifically focused on that last piece – the shared piece. We think that these other innovations will only kind of maximize their efficiency and their potential if they are, in fact, one day a shared service. So at Via our mission is to power the world’s most efficient, convenient, affordable shared rides.

We started as a ride-share company in New York in 2012. It was a consumer service and we wanted to get the most people in one vehicle headed in the same direction. We quickly realized that to have the footprint and the impact that we want to have,

we wanted to change our strategy- by actually working, instead of with consumers, with partners. Partners can be defined as cities, transit agencies, private operators, employers, university systems, you name it. Anyone who’s running their own transportation systems, we essentially wanted to license what we were doing to them to provide it themselves.

Some we just provide the software piece, some we come in and provide the software, the vehicles, the drivers, and run everything A to Z.

A ride-share solution could solve some gaps – first/last mile solution or where there might be existing public transit, and there likely is, but people are having a hard time accessing it. What the first/last mile solution does is it actually solves that gap for people. So they never have to get into their vehicle and we can connect them better to the public transit infrastructure and broader system that’s available to them.

On managed lanes

Alberto Gonzalez: I’m the CEO since 2016 of three of the managed lanes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The LBJ Express, North Tarrant Express, and recently NTE 35W.  The way we characterize these projects is we call them toll lanes within existing highways. So it’s adding capacity to an existing corridor managed through dynamic pricing.

It’s a choice. We’re providing an option to users. The free lanes, or the non-paid lanes, are still available, actually reconstructed and with better conditions than they were before.

We have about $6 billion worth of infrastructure of assets built in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We put that money up front. … Texas only had to come up with roughly a billion dollars of that. It’s a very, very significant leverage in the use of public funds and I think it’s one of the greatest features of this project.

We’ve seen more than 10 million people on the project since our first project opened in December 2013.

These projects were characterized, at some point, as the Lexus lanes. Like only the wealthy were going to use the new lanes. The reality is that the mix of cars that we see in the managed lanes has no significant difference with the general mix of cars that we see in the general-purpose lanes.

We have a lot of small-business owners – small trucks – who have told us, “I don’t even think about it. For $2 or $3, I get to do an additional service in my day and I make 50 bucks out of that additional service. So I get $50 out of paying $2. It’s a no-brainer.”

Every month, we see about 1.4 million unique drivers in our projects. I know there’s a lot of money in D-FW, but I don’t know if there’s 1.4 million really wealthy people in D-FW.

Ninety-five percent of our users pay less than $50 a month on the managed-lane usage.